A human security hell emerges in Syria

August 23, 2012
Vancouver Sun
Kenneth Christie

Syria is starting to represent a nightmare for observers of its human security situation. Wracked by civil war and political violence in the last 18 months and with the body count now over 20,000, it is rapidly developing into a humanitarian crisis that will be difficult to stem in the weeks and months to come.

Its economic situation is becoming dire as it appears to disintegrate. The international community’s failure to act followed by the resignation of its peace envoy, Kofi Annan, is simply another sign of the desperate situation that has developed over a conflict that appears unsolvable in the immediate future and may be intractable in the long range. Annan’s replacement, Lakhdar Brahimi, a former foreign minister for Algeria, is speaking from experience when he describes Syria as “a civil war.” And in civil wars in the developing world, rarely is there a happy ending, particularly when those wars tend to have ethnic and sectarian dimensions.

Three things are really at stake in the crisis and how it will affect the human security dimensions of the conflict. The protection of vulnerable individuals and civilians in the war, the dire consequences for regional instability as a result and the risks for minority and ethnic groups who are caught up in this within the country and across the Syrian border. All of these facets are increasingly overlapping with one another.

In the case of the first, the real problem is the fact that thousands are fleeing Syria to neighbouring countries, putting enormous strain on their already weak resources and fragile economies.

There are no real safe zones within Syria any more. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled their homes looking for shelter from both the government and rebel forces who desperately seek to control the large cities of Damascus and Aleppo among others. Turkey has taken in about 70,000 refugees. More than 37,000 refugees have fled into neighbouring Lebanon, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Jordan Times recently reported an average of 1,000 refugees cross the Jordanian border every day from Syria.

It is a flood that may have no end in sight. People caught in the middle of civil wars have always fled for their own safety and they also exit because they fear political persecution if they stay. This scenario is accelerating into a humanitarian disaster very quickly, as the numbers testify.

The repercussions for regional stability here could be complex and dramatic.

Some think the war is becoming a proxy struggle between Shiite Iran and the Sunni states of Turkey and the Arab Middle East, if respective weapons flows are anything to go by.

If the Sunnis came to dominate a post-Assad Syria, for instance, it might result in the exodus of a large number of the more than two million Christians who fear such a scenario. The problematic situation of the Kurds who could control their own areas would exacerbate tensions with Turkey. For decades, Turkey has been fighting a Kurdish insurgency that has cost at least 40,000 dead on both sides. Turkey would be upset to see the Kurds gain more territory in the north like they claimed in the autonomous zone in northern Iraq, creating new regional tensions.

The political fallout could be disastrous. All the regional actors involved have to take their share of the responsibility for the fault-lines that are developing in this Syrian end game but none appear willing to do so as Russia, China and the West are still divided over the peace process and the outcomes.

Ethnic and sectarian tensions are reaching a boiling point. The divisions between the ruling Alawite sect and the Sunni Muslims (the majority of the population) grow more intense and bitter every day. These sectarian clashes and divisions are already spilling over into Lebanon, hardly known for its levels of stability over the years. The result will be a terrible sectarian mess, fuelled by political and social insecurity. These lines are becoming harder and messier as the war drags on.

Syria continues to sink into chaos. The stakes are enormously high for all concerned, but it’s the individuals on the ground, the women and children and the weak who will suffer the most. The BBC recently reported on a 90-year-old Syrian man hobbling around a deserted road in Aleppo calling for help. His family had gone and he had nowhere safe to stay. The basic human security of vulnerable individuals like him is being systematically stripped away in Syria and replaced with a vision of hell.

Kenneth Christie is a professor at Royal Roads University, Victoria and head of the Human Security and Peacebuilding Program.